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Two years ago, the Obama administration denied a request by the Utah-based Center for Excellence in Higher Education, a chain of for-profit colleges, to reclassify to nonprofit status.

The denial prompted a lawsuit from CEHE, which accused the Obama administration of agenda-driven decision making.

That lawsuit has yet to be resolved, but the for-profit chain is now facing more pressing challenges: its accreditor, the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges, last week placed its 11 campuses on systemwide probation.

The findings that led to that step show a serious focus on consumer concerns such as misleading advertising and recruitment as well as outcomes like academic performance.

The nearly 80-page letter from the commission paints a picture of campuses that had prioritized enrollment of new students over educational quality and shirked their responsibility to students. The findings also suggest abusive consumer practices and discriminatory attitudes toward some students.

The accreditor found CEHE, which operates College America and Stevens-Henager College, has included unenforceable provisions in enrollment agreements that could lead students to believe they had no recourse when they discovered misrepresentations by their program after an initial 90-day period. And in one case, an Arizona campus attempts to explain away poor academic outcomes by citing the culture of its largely Native American student body -- an explanation that shocked the commission.

“Over all the commission found CEHE’s response to be dismissive of the schools’ responsibilities to the students and to the accrediting process,” wrote ACCSC executive director Michale McComis in the letter last week.

Eric Juhlin, CEHE’s CEO, said the chain is reviewing the decision and planning a response to the commission.

“In short, we strongly disagree with significant portions of the commission’s proffered basis and rationale for this decision and feel that this system-wide action is unjustified,” he said in an email. “We are concerned and troubled that this decision may have been issued in reaction to external or other inappropriate influences.”

The chain must submit a response to the commission findings by Dec. 21. Its status will be reviewed again at the February 2019 board meeting of ACCSC.

Without approval from an accreditor, a college can’t keep its access to federal Title IV funds, which includes revenue from student loans and Pell Grants. But it’s rare that an accreditor takes the step of completely yanking a college’s accreditation -- an outcome that would put most institutions out of business.

Many of the issues cited in the findings letter have been documented at CEHE programs for years.

Antoinette Flores, associate director for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, said the findings letter from ACCSC is still significant because its transparency, focus on consumer protection and detailed list of institutional failures are uncommon for accreditors.

“It’s an example of exactly the kind of work accrediting agencies should be engaged in,” Flores said.

Among the commission’s top concerns were misleading statements about students’ rights. Enrollment agreements at CEHE campuses have included mention of a 90-day “verification period” in which students may terminate their enrollment without penalty if they discover any misrepresentations by their program. But the chain knows the provision cannot be enforced, meaning it would only have the effect of confusing students about their rights, the commission found.

CEHE campuses have also used advertising that could mislead students about the programs they offer, the commission found. College mailers have listed a full slate of programs offered in a geographic area but require students to call and inquire about the specific program of study they are interested in. That practice could create opportunities for recruiters to pressure students into enrolling in a program of study they weren’t originally interested in, the commission found.

ACCSC told the CEHE it won’t just examine finished advertising going forward. The accreditor will also examine the process for creating and approving advertising for the campuses.

Most troubling to the accreditor was the explanation it received for below-benchmark student achievement at the College America campus in Flagstaff, Ariz. The campus noted that it serves a student population with 65 percent Native American students. Because of the makeup of its student body, the campus said it “is faced with several unique and challenging cultural factors that must be considered and/or addressed when serving this population.”

Among those cultural factors, the campus cited what the commission found to be overgeneralized statements about Native American culture such as “lack of direct eye contact,” a “shunning of individual recognition” and focus on “living in the present as each day comes.”

ACCSC said those statements showed a lack of sensitivity to students served by the campus and an attempt to blame poor outcomes on the culture of its students.

Asked about the specific findings, McComis said the letter would have to speak for itself. But he said the standards used to judge the CEHE institutions have been in place for years and have been applied consistently over time.

“There’s no special application here,” he said.

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